I left Albergue Mercadoira before breakfast expecting to find a cafe in Portomarin. Just before the bridge into Portomarin I exchanged photos with three Spanish women then followed the arrows over the bridge and around the town. Too late I discovered I would have to climb up the hill into the plaza for breakfast. Too lazy to retrace my steps, I continued on. Surely there would soon be a cafe for all the pilgrims leaving town and looking forward to second breakfast. Into the forest I walked. Leaves cushioned my steps and magpies, so different to the Australian variety, flicked their tails and jumped into trees. A flotilla of Spanish pilgrims chattered past me as I rested near a well. The sky clouded over. Without caffeine, I wilted under the cold and the wet. Eleven kilometres on I finally reached the first cafe. I guzzled a coffee and tortilla. Two seasoned German pilgrims set their packs down next to me and we shared a more leisurely second coffee. We rolled our eyes at the pilgrims in well-pressed blouses and trousers milling around us. While we tossed our heavy backpacks to one side, they guarded their little daypacks jealously. Possessions are just another burden, we agreed. At this stage someone could take everything and we’d still work out a way to get by.
I entered Galicia in fog. O’Cebreiro was an apparition, the buildings barely visible in the misty rain. I missed the church whose priest reinvigorated the Camino for the twentieth century. He painted the ubiquitous yellow arrows that mark the Way. Because of him, the number of pilgrims increased from a few to the hundreds of thousands that now pass through O’Cebreiro every year.
I passed through a string of villages, bars and bathrooms. My knees ached, and I argued with myself about sending my pack on the next day. Sending my pack on always provoked a storm of anxiety. When I set out most mornings, I never knew where I would end up. I chose a provisional destination and a potential albergue and if I didn’t make it I stopped and looked in my guide for the closest accommodation. If I sent my pack on, I would have to book a bed and make sure I arrived to fill it. Uncertainty is the only certainty on the Camino. An albergue might be open and a bed free – or not. My pack might arrive at an albergue before me, or not until next day. I might see a congenial companion after lunch or never make contact again. A cafe might be open in the next village for second breakfast or it may have closed forever. The grocery shop in the next town may open in the morning or not until siesta is well over. I soon learnt to tolerate uncertainty.
Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.
Harold S. Kushner
Next morning as I left the monastery I passed a large box. Pilgrims threw everything into it that had weighed them down over the Pyrenees. One could clothe an entire monastery from its contents. Socks, trousers, cameras, pullovers, coats, and beanies spilled out of it. Clearly I was not the only one to have struggled on that first day. I crossed the stone-flagged courtyard of the monastery in sleet. Under the first arch I stopped and covered myself and my pack with the poncho, strapped on my gaiters, took a deep breath and dived on down the hill. Others swarmed past me intent on reaching Larrasoana, 25 kilometres away. All the muscles and joints in my body were aching. Every few steps I had to stop and adjust my gear. My shoes were too tight. Rain blurred my glasses. The wind filled my poncho and steered me off the path. My belly rumbled and I feared that the illness that had gripped me in Bordeaux was returning. To distract myself from my woes I thought about what I could leave behind if I saw another discard box. In the monastery I had only used a sleeping bag liner because the dormitories were so well heated. The sleeping bag weighed 1.5 kilos and was way too warm, but I’d borrowed it and could hardly throw it away. The laces on my gaiters came undone. I bent to retie them but they had swollen in the wet and refused to tie tightly. I tried to squat closer to them. Suddenly I was on my back in the mud. The sleeping bag strapped to the bottom of my pack had dragged me off balance. Now it was my turn for tears of frustration. Stuck on my back in the mud, in the rain, I was unable to gain traction. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a fence. Steady on I told myself, just hold tight, do up the laces with a treble knot this time and get up, gracefully if possible. The sleeping bag was definitely on the discard list. Out of the forest, before Burgete, I came on Terence with Connie, whom I’d met in the shower line the night before. Connie was suffering with a painful knee. Big bear Terence was walking with her, pushing her to keep at it. His gentle encouragement also helped me to go on through Burgete. I hadn’t practised walking with my walking sticks much at home and now I was discovering muscles in my arms and shoulders that I hardly knew existed. My legs were tired and my head spinning with the enormity of what I had taken on. Into Viskarret I dragged. The guide book advised me that the next town with accommodation was 16km and four hours away. My legs, arms and head all mutinied. They could hardly walk another step let alone four more hours. I studied the guide. No mention of an albergue in Viskarret. My heart sank. I couldn’t possibly walk another kilometre. A few metres further on I entered the main part of the town. Ahead was a wrought iron gate. Two hands shaped a heart in the metal. “Corazon Puno,” I read, “open at midday.” I looked at my phone. 12 o’clock. Relief, but was there a bed? So many had been ahead of me. I rang the bell. “Yes, yes, of course there is a bed. Let me take your wet poncho. Leave your boots here. Wash your trousers and hang them here in front of the heater.” My host was all practicality. I left my mud-encrusted boots and walking sticks near the door. Istvan steered me upstairs to a hot shower and a warm bed and I sank in to his kindness gratefully.
In the cafe in Valcarlos I ordered my first cafe con leche, coffee with milk, and bocadillo con queso, bread roll with cheese. My plan had been to stop in Valcarlos but it was only 11 o’clock. The albergue didn’t open until 1pm. I vacillated. Dave and a couple of other pilgrims on the next table urged me to keep going. I decided to push on to Roncevalles. The road so far was easy – except for the steep climb into Valcarlos – and my stomach was behaving. We were already over half way there. Why waste a day hanging around Valcarlos? I reasoned. The climb was gradual at first. We veered off the sealed road and onto a shaded path through the forest. Leaves many centimetres thick cushioned our steps. Streams ran clear over stony beds. This was the Europe I’d always imagined. Perched on a rock I ate the omelette baguette my host had made me at breakfast. After my picnic I fell in with Irish Jenny and a young woman with an enormous pack. As the going got tougher Jenny and I leapfrogged, stopping to chat and catch our breath. The other woman lagged further and further behind. We stopped to let her catch up. After a couple of hours of this leapfrogging and waiting, the young woman threw herself on her back and declared she could go no further. She looked like a turtle stranded on its back, legs and arms waving, tears of frustration streaming down her face. Horrified we heaved her up, sat with her a while, then helped her up to the little road that ran nearby. She personified our fears – her backpack too heavy, the path too steep, her body too weak to cope. In silence we continued our journey. The sun disappeared behind fog. Sleet cut us off from the trees around us and the gradient of the path grew steeper and steeper. Despite the cold I stripped off my coat. By the time we reached the top of the Ibaneta Pass I was gasping for air, overheated and freezing cold all at once. We only stayed a few minutes at the chapel before we tumbled down the steep path to the ancient stone abbey at Roncevalles. Out of the fog at the bottom of the Ibaneta Pass emerged the abbey. It has housed pilgrims for over a millennium. Although it accommodates 186 people, the double bunks are in alcoves, so I didn’t feel as if I was bedded down with a hundred others. I was so exhausted the climb to the third floor dorm seemed higher than the climb over the Pass. The signs on the four bed alcoves barely made sense to my bleary eyes. Finally I found the bed that corresponded to the key in my hand. Every muscle in my body groaned when I saw that it was a top bunk. I slung my pack into the locker, clambered up onto the bed and immediately fell asleep.
After a hearty breakfast in Gite Beilari’s warm kitchen I set out feeling strong. I was aiming for Valcarlos. Roncevalles could wait until tomorrow. I crossed the fabled bridge and left the cobblestones of the old town behind. The sun shone on the stream of pilgrims emerging out of the early morning fog of the valley. The trees were still bare, their branches weaving a web over fields high above the red-roofed farmhouses. Buds were shut tight waiting for spring and the creeks below them rushed with snow melt. Sheep in full wool grazed on pasture up to their knees, fenced in by sticks and wire that would never have kept skittish Australian merinos in. To an Australian used to dried grass and brown-red dust the fields in the foothills of the Pyrenees were luminous. The green was so bright that I put on my sunglasses within 10 minutes of leaving St Jean-Pied-de-Port. Dave, who’d shared a dorm in Beilari, and I walked together for a while. He was worried that he wouldn’t make Santiago but his optimism grew as the sun came out and the road opened out before us. As I marched toward Valcarlos I wondered why I had to travel half way around the world to feel so alive. Pondering this question I stopped on the river bank opposite Valcarlos. The sun felt soft on my skin, so different to the harsh Antipodean sun I’d left only a few days before. My companions from breakfast trooped past, eyes on the road. I stayed, not waiting for anything in particular just revelling in the riches of the moment. I was on my way; on the Way; on the Camino Frances, at last, and this moment felt complete. The world was fresh and my eyes, ears and skin were soaking in every detail. I was in the moment, in my skin, alive to the world and my response to it. I’d read about mindfulness and tried to practise it in the crevasses of time between work and home, between the demands of patients and dependents, but had not grasped its full meaning until now. Opening myself up to this experience allowed the world into my consciousness. I was pulled in to the present moment as I let the past fall away and the future take care of itself. On the road to Valcarlos I could not control the future and the past didn’t matter. I’d finally given the present space in my awareness and let it have the attention it deserved.
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed
Any hope I had of a Camino in Spain or France this year faded months ago. Covid-19 has confined me to the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the smallest of all the Australian states and territories. Despite the rule to stay at home we are allowed to walk our dogs. Monty, my Labrador, and I are taking full advantage of this to explore the many paths around the mountains and lakes of the ACT.
Monty lives in the moment. His nose takes him on sensory adventures I can never hope to understand. While I wonder at the mist rising from the lake he follows the scent of a possum to the foot of a towering eucalypt. When I stop to watch a flock of grass parrots lift from their breakfast he dives through the reeds into cold water without hesitation.
With him the world is new. Everything is amazing. I am learning Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘radical amazement’ from him. It is incredible that I am alive, that I have senses intact and legs strong enough to take me wherever I will. These trees and birds in their beautiful morning are phenomenal. I am amazed.
And from this confinement I have learnt not to take anything for granted. An invisible enemy has taken away our freedom to travel, to see family and friends, to shop wherever we please. Never again will I treat these freedoms casually. This is one of many good things that have come out of the world slowing down.
When you slow down you see more, hear more, feel more, remember more
I’d planned a loose itinerary before leaving home on the Chemin du Puy. After the first few days of short distances I had decided I would be able to walk up to 25km in a day. Little did I know how many and how steep the hills would be. The rain and mud on some days made the going slower. Before Les Gentianes a series of cockie’s gates further slowed me. I’m not sure what the French call wire gates looped to posts but Australian stockowners are called cockies and cockies’ gates are usually improvised and temporary, and require a problem-solving attitude to open. Some stumped me and I climbed through the adjoining fences. When I woke, my room-mate Denise and I discussed our walking strategies in broken French. Her maximum walk was 15 km per day. Her priorities were to enjoy the landscape and the food, and to refresh herself after a very bad year. As she went along she was learning to appreciate each day as it played out. For her tomorrow was too far away and yesterday held too many painful memories. Because today was so important she conserved her energy so that she could take delight in every step. As Denise and I slipped and slid down the hill to the farmhouse for dinner, I reflected on the wisdom of her slow way. Time is elastic on pilgrimage. Distances irrelevant. When you slow down you see more, hear more, feel more, remember more. I needed to slow down to feel how I am now, who I am now and how I want to live my life. I recalibrated and remembered that a pilgrimage, whether a day long or a month long, always brings something surprising: a renewed connection with field and forest, bird and tree; an insight or new perspective on a problem, person or place; a way forward; a creative idea; a fresh commitment to a relationship or path of life; at the least a shedding of personas and a stripping back of things. Something unexpected is always delivered. At our table in front of the fire I determined to revise the distances I walked each day and to give myself time to recover. Friends Cam and Angela were already in the dining room when we arrived. The farmer’s wife served us aligot, a delicious dish of mashed potato beaten with butter, garlic and a smorgasbord of cheeses, typical of the region. The aligot stretched out in long elastic strings from the plate to our forks and mouths. The four of us were soon in stitches of laughter. It was more difficult to eat than spaghetti. Together with my attempts to translate Denise’s French to English for the Koreans and to understand their limited English, the hilarity escalated. During the meal it began to snow. Beyond the warm room and the white curtained windows the barn and fields caught layer upon layer of snowflakes. As Denise and I trudged through them back up to the gite my body reminded me that I was drowning in fatigue and cold. As I subsided onto my bed wrapped in my sleeping bag and all the spare blankets I could find, I wondered how I would ever go on. After 10 hours sleep I had a new body. Keen to get going I ate breakfast with the Koreans and set out through the silent white landscape. Overnight miracles like this happen frequently, and not just on the Camino. I go from thinking I have reached my limits or have failed at something, to remembering that I can always begin again. Every morning is a new beginning. I am a perpetual beginner, always ready to learn, to pick myself up, to rest, to allow things to settle and set myself to beginning again.
box of discards at the first albergue door left behind the clutter and clamour of ordinary life
Three Canadian women called me over to their table in Saceda. They found me a bit of a curiosity. I’d walked many hundreds of kilometres more than they had, and carried a full pack on my back most of the way. Their bags were ferried from hotel to hotel while they strolled along the trail with a light daypack. They wanted to know what I thought of the albergues and how I’d managed with only what was in my pack for 700 kilometres. I reflected on their eager questions. Every morning as I’d slung my pack on my back I’d revelled in the simplicity of Camino life. Everything I needed was on my back. Nothing else in the world mattered. I had nothing to clean, adjust, or fuss over. My clothes were (usually) clean. I’d showered and slept. How simple life could be. How complicated we let it become. I’d relished the freedom that caring for only a few things gave me. When I reached the albergue each afternoon I would shower and dress in the clothes I planned to wear next day. Before I gave in to an afternoon nap I would take the day’s wash to the albergue wash tubs or, if I was lucky, washing machine and dryer. Most often I washed the clothes by hand, wrung them out and squashed them in my towel to remove as much moisture as possible. I washed my hair, my body and my clothes with the same soap, a shampoo replenished several times along the way. Liquid is weight. If one thing can do several jobs choose it to minimise the weight you have to carry. Once the clothes were on the line I could relax and have a nap or write my journal over a juice in the bar. Pilgrims arrived around me, settled in, shared tales from the day, and made plans for the evening. On cold days I learned to layer: a teeshirt, a long sleeved shirt and a light jacket. If it rained a poncho went over my pack and body. The jacket usually came off first as the poncho kept the heat in very effectively. Gaiters kept the slush off my socks and trousers in mud and rain, and helped keep me warm. I came to love my pack. It felt like it we were setting out into the world together every morning, leaving our worries and anything unnecessary behind. Life felt easy and I was content to just let it happen. All I needed was on my back.
I hadn’t realised how attached to the heft and weight of my pack I’d become until I decided to send my pack on from Najera to Santa Domingo de la Calzada with Correos. Despite the climb and my tiredness after a broken night I missed the familiar weight on my back and worried that it would get lost. The next time I sent my pack on I was much more confident that it would be there to greet me. By that stage, on the climb to O’Cebreiro, I had also come to a state of detachment in which even the disappearance of my pack, or some of its contents would not have unduly worried me.
Kairos time is lived in the now, by attuning ourselves to what each hour, each situation brings
The sun was out next morning and after about 10 minutes of walking I started to wonder what on earth I was doing: I’d slept poorly, my knees were aching, the path was thick with mud and strewn with rocks. My body groaned that it wasn’t over yesterday’s push and pain. My mind flew off in a million different directions: the next coffee stop, the train I’d booked from Santiago, tonight’s albergue, my dirty socks, the pilgrim missing from last night’s dorm. The mist rising from the rocks and wildflowers, and the fresh buds on the winter-bare trees failed to capture my attention. My mind was far from the mountain I was on. A chirrup penetrated the mental cacophany. A welcome. An invitation to wake up. I stopped and looked up. A small bird on a branch was singing up the sun. My mind stilled. I listened to his aria. What else did I have to do? I was still on a 700 kilometre walk. I had no-one to meet, no-one to please, no deadline, no bookings, nothing that couldn’t wait a day, a week, or even a month. Re-energised and re-focused I continued on. This little bird – I swear it was the same one each morning – met me early on the way each day, before I was into the rhythm of walking and when I was wondering how I would make it to my destination. He stilled my mind and sent me on my way with attention to my surroundings instead of my anxieties. I called him my bird of encouragement. He rarely failed me. Wherever I was he would appear on a branch, a fence or a wire to cheer me on and fly with me a way. He lifted my heart and restored my sense of wonder and profound gratitude for the blessing of a day free to walk in this beautiful country. Monk David Steindl-Rast speaks of the experience of time in two different ways. In our day to day lives we live in chronos or clock time, structuring our days according to meetings, duty, work and home. Kairos time is lived “in the now, by attuning ourselves to what each hour, each situation brings,” he says. This is the sort of time that little bird called me to each morning. I left behind in Australia days full of 20 minute appointment slots, meetings, and deadlines. I entered days ordered by encounters, opportunities, and serendipity.
Theirs is a journey of discovery, of trust, of opening up to something new, something more – not just externally, but within. A pilgrimage promotes a willingness to live with mystery in movement toward a destination – a willingness to believe that any re-routing is actually by a providential design.
I entered in Galicia in fog. O’Cebreiro was an apparition, the buildings barely visible in the misty rain. I nearly missed the church where a priest decided to reinvigorate the Camino for the twentieth century. He painted the ubiquitous yellow arrows to mark the Way and slowly the numbers of pilgrims built to the hundreds of thousands that now pass through O’Cebreiro every year. However the town was empty of any life when I passed through that chilly morning. As I passed the albergue on the other side of O’Cebreiro I heard singing. A convoy of German pilgrims set out as I passed. Every few hundred metres they gathered to praise and pray. They only carried day packs so fluttered just ahead of me as I lugged my full pack. Finally ahead of the choristers, I passed through a string of villages, bars and bathrooms. My knees ached and I argued with myself about sending my pack on with the courier next day. The trouble was that I didn’t know where I would end up on any day. Usually I decided on a provisional destination and chose a potential albergue in the town. If I didn’t make it I simply stopped and looked in my guide for the closest accommodation. If I sent my pack on I would have to book a bed and be sure to make it there. Uncertainty is the only certainty on the Camino. An albergue might be open and a bed free – or not. My pack might arrive at an albergue before me or not until next day. I might see a congenial companion after lunch or never make contact again. A cafe might be open in the next village for second breakfast or it may have closed forever. The grocery shop in the next town may open in the morning or not until siesta is well over. I soon learnt to tolerate uncertainty.
Paula Gamble-Grant writes in unhurryUp! that pilgrims are on “a journey of discovery, of trust, of opening up to something new, something more – not just externally, but within. A pilgrimage promotes a willingness to live with mystery in movement toward a destination – a willingness to believe that any re-routing is actually by a providential design.”